WASHINGTON – Lapses by private port operators, shipping lines or truck drivers could allow terrorists to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into the United States, according to a government review of security at American seaports.
The $75 million, three-year study by the Homeland Security Department included inspections at a New Jersey cargo terminal involved in the dispute over a Dubai company's now-abandoned bid to take over significant operations at six major U.S. ports.
The previously undisclosed results from the study found that cargo containers can be opened secretly during shipment to add or remove items without alerting U.S. authorities, according to government documents marked "sensitive security information" and obtained by The Associated Press.
The study found serious lapses by private companies at foreign and American ports, aboard ships, and on trucks and trains "that would enable unmanifested materials or weapons of mass destruction to be introduced into the supply chain."
The study, expected to be completed this fall, used satellites and experimental monitors to trace roughly 20,000 cargo containers out of the millions arriving each year from Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Most containers are sealed with mechanical bolts that can be cut and replaced or have doors that can be removed by dismantling hinges.
The risks from smuggled weapons are especially worrisome because U.S. authorities largely decide which cargo containers to inspect based on shipping records of what is thought to be inside.
Among the study's findings:
_Safety problems were not limited to overseas ports. A warehouse in Maine was graded less secure than any in Pakistan, Turkey or Brazil. "There is a perception that U.S. facilities benefit from superior security protection measures," the study said. "This mind set may contribute to a misplaced sense of confidence in American business practices."
_No records were kept of "cursory" inspections in Guatemala for containers filled with Starbucks Corp. coffee beans shipped to the West Coast. "Coffee beans were accessible to anyone entering the facility," the study said. It found significant mistakes on manifests and other paperwork. In a statement to the AP, Starbucks said it was reviewing its security procedures.
_Truck drivers in Brazil were permitted to take cargo containers home overnight and park along public streets. Trains in the U.S. stopped in rail yards that did not have fences and were in high-crime areas. A shipping industry adage reflects unease over such practices: "A container at rest is a container at risk."
_Practices at Turkey's Port of Izmir were "totally inadequate by U.S. standards." But, the study noted, "It has been done that way for decades in Turkey."
_Containers could be opened aboard some ships during weekslong voyages to America. "Due to the time involved in transit (and) the fact that most vessel crew members are foreigners with limited credentialing and vetting, the containers are vulnerable to intrusion during the ocean voyage," the study said.
_Some governments will not help tighten security because they view terrorism as an American problem. The U.S. said "certain countries," which were not identified, would not cooperate in its security study — "a tangible example of the lack of urgency with which these issues are regarded."
_Security was good at two terminals in Seattle and nearby Tacoma, Wash. The operator in Seattle, SSA Marine, uses cameras and software to track visitors and workers. "We consider ourselves playing an important role in security," said the company's vice president, Bob Waters.
In theory, some nuclear materials inside cargo containers can be detected with special monitors. But such devices have frustrated port officials in New Jersey because bananas, kitty litter and fire detectors — which all emit natural radiation — set off the same alarms more than 100 times every day.
The study applauded efforts to install radiation monitors overseas. "While there is clearly value in nuclear detection at a U.S. port, that is precisely the concern — it is already on U.S. soil," it said.
Finding biological and chemical weapons inside cargo containers is less likely. The study said tests were "labor intensive, time-consuming and costly to use" and produced too many false alarms. "No silver bullet has emerged to render terrorists incapable of introducing WMD into containers," it said.
Sen. Patty Murray (news, bio, voting record), who advocated the study, said: "There are huge holes in our security system that need to be filled." The Washington Democrat said the study "shows us there are major vulnerabilities over who handles cargo, where it's been and whether cargo is on a manifest."
Part of the study tested new tamper-evident locks on containers and tracking devices.
"It's important to figure out what works and what doesn't," said Elaine Dezenski, Homeland Security's acting assistant secretary for policy development. She said the study "gave us a much better view of vulnerabilities." The U.S. is looking for weaknesses across the shipping system to learn where terrorists might strike, she said.
The study, called "Operation Safe Commerce," undercuts arguments that port security in America is an exclusive province of the Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection and is not managed by companies operating shipping terminals.
The theme was an important element in the Bush administration's forceful defense of the deal it originally approved to allow Dubai-owned DP World to handle significant operations at ports in New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.
Bush and senior officials sought to assure lawmakers that safety at ports would not decline.
"I can understand people's consternation because the first thing they heard was that a foreign company would be in charge of our port security when in fact, the Coast Guard and Customs are in charge of our port security," Bush said Feb. 28. "Our duty is to protect America, and we will protect America."
DP World promised on Thursday to transfer fully to an American company its U.S. port operations it acquired when it bought London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
It was unclear how such a sale might occur, but the divestiture was expected to involve major operations at the six U.S. ports and affect lesser dockside activities at 16 other ports in this country.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a leading critic of the Dubai deal, said anyone suggesting that port operators and shipping companies were not involved with security was "living in La-La land."
"You can obviously have stuff in containers that doesn't make it onto manifests, either by design or from the actions of bad actors," Menendez said in an AP interview Friday. "A terminal operator is so involved in the overall security equation of ports."
Parts of the U.S. study examined the safety of containers sent to the same cargo terminal in New Jersey that DP World would have managed jointly and operated with its Denmark-based rival, Maersk Sealand.
Hundreds of pages of study documents obtained by the AP do not list specific security lapses at the New Jersey terminal. The final two cargo containers being tracked under the study were expected to arrive there this week from the Middle East.
But the study broadly described problems in warehouses and other storage areas that raised doubts about the safety of containers brought to New Jersey's port. It cited problems with protective fences and gates, surveillance cameras and emergency plans.
The lengthy study has been beset by problems. Japan refused to allow officials to attach tracking devices to containers destined for the United States. Other tracking devices sometimes failed. Many shipping companies refused to disclose information for competitive reasons.
Some containers in the study were aboard a ship the Coast Guard held 11 miles off New Jersey's coast for security reasons in August 2004. An anonymous e-mail had claimed a container filled with tons of lemons was deliberately contaminated with a biological agent. The lemons were fumigated and burned, but no trace of poison was ever found; the containers also were destroyed.
Parts of the study could not be finished at all. U.S. officials went to Pakistan to inspect how workers in Karachi handle cargo containers. But they canceled plans for a return inspection because of an outbreak of terrorist attacks there.